The Books of My Numberless Dreams

What to say about Book III

Posted on: July 14, 2007

I’m finding it difficult to come up with anything interesting to write about for this bit of Paradise Lost. If I had the uneven Alphabet of Thorns in my possession I would post about that instead. Whenever I’m in the mood to blog though, I take it up in order to alleviate any guilt over the days when I’m not interested.

As previously mentioned it is in this book that we enter heaven for the first time. God observes Satan flying about, up to no good, and quickly defends his choices for a) showing the Adversary no mercy, and b) the Fall. Both reasons are far from satisfactory. For the first he claims that because Adam & Eve got the idea to sin from someone else, they get a pass, but Satan came up with it himself so he gets fucked. (What about the angels that followed him though? From the scenes in Hell it’s obvious that Lucifer was the brains of the operation, so why didn’t get the “return” option? Anyway….)

The first sort by their own suggestion fell,
Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived
By the other first: man therefore shall find grace;
The other none: in mercy and justice both,
Through Heav’n and earth, so shall my glory excel,
But mercy first and last shall brightest shine.

“The first sort” is Satan and his minions. This explanation struck me as unfair and merciless. From my dim memory of church-going days I surmised that Adam and Eve while in the garden had no worries and nothing to do but name and romp with animals and enjoy God’s love, right? Their prefrontal lobes were under-developed, not having any knowledge, so I’m assuming it was like being high all the time. They weren’t intellectually capable of Lucifer’s initiative or complex motivations. He deserved harsher punishment but to lock him out for eternity? “mercy first and last” my butt.

Then Milton tries to deal with the tricky question of how God can give man and angels free will yet still know precisely how things are going to bear out (and to a pretty dismal end too).

They therefore as to right belonged,
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Their Maker, or their making, or their fate,
As if predestination overruled
Their will, disposed by absolute decree
Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed
Their own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less proved certain unforeknown.

Milton’s God trips himself in the last line — if it wasn’t any less certain and divine foreknowledge had nothing to do with it, then what did? Something outside of God? Impossible. Frankly, I want to know how God expected Adam and Eve to resist Satan’s temptation if they didn’t know right from wrong. (In fact how would rules work? If they don’t get the concept of what being bad is, of evil, then one’s hope is pretty much riding on the fact they’d be too blissed out to bother, no? I’m interested in seeing how Milton deals with that as well.)

God’s speech continues as he relishes the control he’ll have over man’s access to grace — “Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand/ On even ground against his mortal foe,/ By me upheld, that he may know how frail/ His fall’n condition is, and to me owe/ All his deliverance, and to none but me” — ending with the statement that despite all this mankind’s life span will still end in utter destruction unless someone wishes to die for his sake. This scene mirrors a similar one in book II in which Beelzebub asked Hell’s denizens who would take up the dangerous task of leaving Hell and searching for a rumoured new world in which a new creation dwelt. As before the angels are careful not to let a peep out but it is to God’s credit that Jesus is the one who volunteers whereas Satan had to go and do it himself. Then God gives his good-work-Son speech and the angels sing hosannas.

The most interesting point I gathered from this section was the lines that implied Milton was not a trinitarian: “Beyond compare the Son of God was seen/Most glorious, in him all his Father shone/Substantially expressed”. John Leonard wrote in footnotes that in his treatise De Doctrina Christiana Milton argued that “God imparted to the Son his ‘divine substance’, but not his ‘total essence'”. To me that contradicted the idea of the trinity, three in one. The drama of the book bears this out as Jesus acted and was treated by God as though he were a second-in-command. For his valiant attempt to save man he gets a lot of great prizes, “Thrones, Princedoms, Powers, Dominions” and he’ll get to weigh souls in the balance come Judgement Day. This is accompanied with numerous exhortations to “honour him as me” but if they were a trinity, wouldn’t that have been the obvious thing to do? The distinction between the three would have been less of an issue in heaven, or so I imagined.

But in a *review of Bright Essence: Studies in Milton’s theology D.T. Mace asserted that the anthology sought to correct the old misconception that Milton was an Arian. The problem as he saw it was a simple issue of terms: Milton used “substantia” as the church fathers used “essentia” so by making Father and Son cosubstantial he’d dealt with the matter. I was willing to accept that until I came across this page on De Doctrina Christiana that presented Milton as having written in no uncertain terms that the trinity was poppycock. So did the contributors argue that Milton was unwittingly for it? A link on a Barnes & Noble board led me to a university Milton’s course page where the instructor (it is assumed) confidently stated that Milton was an unabashed trinitarian.; but he/she doesn’t cite any of Milton’s writings to support it. The whole page has a very teaching-Sunday-school vibe which I find unsettling since it’s supposed to be for a fourth year undergrad and graduate course.

I don’t know know whether this view has much academic currency but I’m willing to give the book a skim at the library. From what I’ve read book V should go some way in clearing things up. I now wonder how close Paradise Lost adhered to Milton’s professed religious ideas. He did set up quite a task for himself in wanting to “justify the ways of God to men”.

Trivia: the “Arguments” — summaries of what occurs in each book — were added in the book’s second edition.

*Mace, D.T. “Bright Essence: Studies in Milton’s Theology.” Review of English Studies: New Series 24.94 (1973): 210-13

6 Responses to "What to say about Book III"

I just love your posts on Milton. Such good questions (no answers from this corner, however) and I always come away thinking that I’d like to tackle the text myself one day.

Thanks, verbivore! That it makes you want to read it too is the best of compliments.

I have not read Paradise Lost, I think I have a copy around here somewhere, will read it hopefully soon. I’m really interested in knowing why Milton wrote this book, what was the time period, what was his personal beliefs. I could answer some of your questions about the trinity, or the Jesus’ glory, and the Adam and Eve story, but don’t want to be accused of proselytizing.

Oh that’s all right Daisy. I’m only interested in Milton’s understanding of the trinity, Jesus and so on rather than those subjects in general. I’ve specifically searched for his writings on it.

Very good, to me the research behind the books is as much fun as reading the book itself. In my poetry study I will read a book on a poet, then do research by reading other books or reading what I can find on the internet. I’m too too curious about what makes people tick and tock!

I’m amazed at how many “Christians” condemn with ease those great men whose poetry has brought us closer to God, from King David, to Solomon, to other biblical greats as well as the more modern writers such as Milton and even the composer, the Reverend Martin Madan whose grand concerts of the late eighteenth popularized hymn singing in the churches. The one thing these men have in common is their professed belief that a man may have more than one wife. It is for this reason that “Christian” historians have virtually erased the great efforts of the Reverend Martin Madan, the most famous evangelist of the 18th century and have slandered the others mentioned here.

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